You'll need time, patience and a measure of caution if you plan to take advantage of a new federal law to obtain free credit reports from the three major credit bureaus. Consumers in Washington and...

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You’ll need time, patience and a measure of caution if you plan to take advantage of a new federal law to obtain free credit reports from the three major credit bureaus.

Consumers in Washington and 12 other Western states were the first to be eligible for the free reports last month under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACT).

But getting your reports won’t be particularly quick or painless.

You may feel squeamish about providing all the personal information required. You’ll have to wade through dense, sometimes confusing detail on your credit history. Some consumers report running into technical problems that prevented them from ordering reports online.

And watch out for pop-up offers for fee-based products and services you may not want or need.

Still, consumer advocates say it’s a powerful tool for understanding your credit record and its effect on your finances.

The new law says every consumer is eligible for a free annual copy of the credit report maintained by each of the three nationwide credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion.

Free credit reports

How to order them: You have three choices — online at; by phone toll-free: 877-322-8228; or by mail: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281. If you want to receive the reports by mail, you must mail in a request form available on the Web site of the Federal Trade Commission.

For more information: Check out the FTC’s Web site. You can also make a complaint online at this address.

Consumers Union has prepared a helpful report, “Your Credit Matters,” available free.

. The nonprofit consumers organization also is conducting a voluntary survey available at that address about consumer experiences in ordering and reviewing their free credit reports. The group plans to share survey results with the FTC in coming months to improve the process.

This is different from your credit score — the number calculated on a scale between about 300 and 925 that most lenders look at. You’ll still have to pay a fee to get a look at your credit score, also available from the three bureaus.

The law, rolling out in the rest of the country during the next nine months, is meant to let consumers see what lenders and others see when deciding whether to rent you an apartment, give you a job or give you the best rate on a mortgage.

It’s also supposed to help consumers spot identity theft by letting them see a list of all credit accounts open in their names.

“It’s worth it,” said Norma Garcia, senior attorney in the West Coast office of Consumers Union, a nonprofit consumers organization. “It’s your information, and it makes a difference in whether you get certain services or privileges and what you’re going to pay.”

But consumer groups like the Washington Public Interest Research Group and the state Attorney General’s Office have started to hear complaints from consumers.

The Federal Trade Commission says it has received fewer than 1,000 complaints since the law went into effect Dec. 1, most from people who got error messages or automatic timeouts when they tried to access an overloaded online system.

Others complaining to the state Attorney General’s Office and groups like Consumers Union say they’ve been confused about how to get the free reports and avoid paying for extras they don’t want. The Seattle office of the state attorney general has received five to eight calls a week about free credit reports since they became available, mostly complaints about the process for obtaining them, a spokeswoman said.

Garcia said her group is concerned that consumers are feeling pressured or tricked into paying for additional services such as monthly credit monitoring that they might not need.

“Confusion creates profits” for the bureaus, Garcia said. “They’re not necessarily interested in making it as easy as they could for people to get their credit reports. … Our sense is it shouldn’t be so hard.”

Nonetheless, she maintains it’s worth the effort.

Where to start

Stay away from offers of third-party help

Here’s how the process works — and what to watch out for:

Start here: This site is run by Central Source, a joint venture among the three credit bureaus to process free credit reports. Or you can call toll-free or order by mail, and the reports are sent to you within 15 days.

If you’re ordering online, it’s best to type the address directly into your Internet browser rather than clicking on a link from another Web site.

Some consumers have reported trying to get their free reports by going through the individual Web sites of the three credit bureaus. But they first have to wade through pages with advertising for expensive monthly credit-monitoring programs and other services to get the free report, Garcia said.

Other consumer advocates warn that it’s likely fraudulent operators will set up their own sites to scam consumers.

Don’t respond to offers from people or companies to get your credit reports for you. “We tell people this is something you’re going to have to initiate on your own,” Garcia said.

Consider setting aside a chunk of uninterrupted time so you’ll have a chance to thoroughly understand what you’re seeing. Garcia also recommends doing this from your home computer because you’ll need to have certain financial information handy to answer security questions.

Social Security number

Yes, you have to release it

Now, swallow hard. You’ll be asked a series of personal questions to make sure it’s really you, including your birth date and Social Security number.

Central Source says its security protocols and measures protect personal information from unauthorized access or alteration. A notice says the Social Security number is encrypted for additional protection.

And you can request that just the last four digits of that number appear on your printed credit report.

Order all three?

Some say it’s best to spread freebies out over the year

Next, you’ll be asked which bureau’s report you’d like to see. You can choose to just look at the information online or print the complete report. (The reports can run to dozens of pages.)

You can choose to see all three at once — advocates recommend this if you’re planning to make a big purchase in the near future.

Or you can space out the three reports during the year. This is helpful for monitoring your credit reports for evidence of identity theft or fraud.

Remember, you can only request one free credit report from each bureau every 12 months.

Three different approaches

All three show who’s been reviewing your history

You’ll be redirected to Web sites set up by each of the three credit bureaus. Each will ask you a series of personal questions to validate your identity: the name of your mortgage lender and amount of your monthly payment, or the amount of your auto loan, for example.

Each Web site has a different look and feel.

• Experian has a handy summary report that shows the number of “potentially negative” items in your report and number of accounts in good standing.

• Equifax shows an exhaustive list of accounts, what type they are, when they were opened, the balance and credit limit, last payment and account status.

TransUnion uses a color-coded series of boxes to show which accounts are current and which are overdue.

• All show who else has been looking at your credit report — credit-card companies seeking to preapprove you for a credit-card offer, mortgage brokers or lenders trying to determine the terms of a loan, or existing creditors reviewing your account.

All offer links for disputing credit-report information or reporting an error. You’ll also get the address and sometimes the phone number for each individual creditor, handy if you need to follow up on an error. And you’re offered the option of submitting a “personal statement” where you can explain your credit report in your own words. The statement remains on file for two years.

Steel thyself for sales pitches

Remember: Basic reports are free

Along the way, you’ll also have to contend with multiple offers for fee-based products and services. You don’t have to buy them to get your free credit reports.

The credit bureaus have loaded up their Web sites with offers for monthly credit-report alerts, credit rankings, home valuators and more.

Credit experts say one additional purchase you may want to consider is your credit score. This is the number most lenders look at to decide whether to give you credit and on what terms.

You can buy all three credit scores, or just one. If you buy just one, consider spending $6.95 for your FICO-based credit score, available through Equifax. FICO stands for Fair Isaac Corp. and is sometimes referred to as the gold standard for credit scores, the one that carries the most weight with lenders. (The other scores cost slightly less.)

The credit bureaus will be persistent in trying to get you to buy additional products. On its Web site, Equifax has a pop-up ad for its FICO score. Even if you choose “no thanks,” the offer pops up again along with additional advertising for other services.

TransUnion offers to send you a free monthly newsletter with tips on managing your credit — and if you sign up, you’re also opting in for alerts to be sent to you about other TransUnion products. A small box next to the newsletter offer is automatically checked “yes”; you’ll have to click again to uncheck it if you don’t want to sign up.

If you have online trouble

What to do if you get stuck

Some consumers have reported the online system crashed when they were trying to see their credit information. This was a particular problem right after the new system launched Dec. 1; most of the complaints to the FTC came in the first few days.

When consumers tried again later, some got a message saying they already had gotten their free report and wouldn’t be eligible again for 12 months.

FTC spokeswoman Jen Schwartzman said the agency is monitoring the new system and the volume and nature of consumer complaints. The bureaus have been especially concerned when they hear from consumers who have been denied access to free reports because of technical problems online.

She recommends that consumers call the toll-free number to report problems and work with customer-service representatives.

Jolayne Houtz: 206-464-3122 and